27 November 2011

Literary Skiers 17

From the high ridges right down to the level of the road, there was snow all over the Ruby Mountains. "Ugh," said Deffeyes--his comment on the snow.

"Spoken like a skier," I said.

He said, "I'm a retired skier."

He skied for the School of Mines. In other Rocky Mountain colleges and universities at the time, the best skiers in the United States were duly enrolled and trying to look scholarly and masquerading as amateurs to polish their credentials for the 1952 Olympic Games. Deffeyes was outclassed even on his own team, but there came a day when a great whiteout sent the superstars sprawling on the mountain. Defffeyes' turn for the slalom came late in the afternoon, and just as he was moving toward the gate the whiteout turned to alpenglow, suddenly bringing into focus the well-compacted snow. He shoved off, and was soon bombing. He was not hurting for weight even then. He went down the mountain like an object dropped from a tower. In the end, his time placed him high among the ranking stars.

Now, in the early evening, crossing Independence Valley, Deffeyes seemed scarcely to notice that the white summits of the Ruby Range--above eleven thousand feet, and the highest mountains in this part of the Great Basin--were themselves being reddened with alpenglow. He was musing aloud, for reasons unapparent to me, about the melting points of tin and lead. He was saying that as a general rule material will flow rather than fracture if it is hotter than half of its melting point measured from absolute zero. At room temperature, you can bend tin and lead. They are solid but they flow. Room temperature is more than halfway between absolute zero and the melting points of tin and lead. At room temperature, you cannot bend glass or cast iron. Room temperature is less than halfway from absolute zero to the melting points of iron and glass.

"If you go down into the earth here to a depth that about equals the width of one of these fault blocks, the temperature is halfway between absolute zero and the melting point of the rock. The crust is brittle above that point and the plastic below it. Where the brittleness ends is the bottom of the tilting fault block, which rests--floats, if you like--in the hot and plastic, slowly flowing lower crust and upper mantle. I think this is why the ranges are so rhythmic. The spacing between them seems to be governed by their depth--the depth of the cold brittle part of the crust. As you cross these valleys from one range to the next, you can sense how deep the blocks are. If they were a lot deeper than their width--if the temperature gradient were different and the cold brittle zone went down, say, five times the surface width--the blocks would not have mechanical freedom. They could not tilt enough to make these mountains. So I suspect the blocks are shallow--about as deep as they are wide. Earthquake history supports this. Only shallow earthquakes have been recorded in the Basin and Range.

"At the western edge of Death Valley, there are great convex mountain faces that are called turtlebacks. To me they are more suggestive of whales. You look at them and you see that they were once plastically deformed. I think the mountains have tilted up enough there to be giving us a peek at the original bottom of a block. Death Valley is below sea level. I would bet that if we could scrape away six thousand feet of gravel from these mile-high basins up here what we would see at the base of these mountains would look like the edge of Death Valley. I haven't published this hypothesis. I think it sounds right. I haven't done any field work in Death Valley. I was just lucky enough to be there in 1961 with the guy who first mapped the geology. I have been lucky all through the years to work in the Basin and Range. The Basin and Range impresses me in terms of geology as does no other place in North America. It's not at all easy, anywhere in the province, to say just what happened and when. Range after range--it is mysterious to me. A lot of geology is mysterious to me."

--John McPhee, from Basin and Range, 1980


22 November 2011

The Waiting Game

Apparently, Switzerland is experiencing the driest November since 1921. Grey clouds below me, above me only sky. It's a long, long while from May to December.

08 November 2011


Apparently change is good. It better be because it's about to happen again. Three and a half years in Switzerland, three in Chile, a year in Kazakhstan, two in Mexico, a couple other places scattered here and there, and come this July all roads will point back home, or at least a version of home in a part of the world I know the best. In July 2012 this piece of property--its physical walls, floors, and ceiling, as well as its history and the stories, people, places, and things that have passed through its doors--will constitute my work for at least a year's time.

Part restoration, part documentation, part research and fieldwork, part exhibit, the project will focus on a 19th century homestead in a remote part of south central Idaho. The project will provide the framework, the daily schedule, for a year. Beyond the project, the year spent in a place, area, or region that I can only generally describe as home will help to redefine and reacquaint me with what I think I know and also don't know about myself. I will have a job to do next year, and a limited time to do it, but the secondary function of next year will be to sink my feet deep in a landscape and culture that for a good ten years has existed
only as memories.

Living abroad has taught me many things, maybe most importantly are the reasons I love the country and place where I was born, both as a physical and ideological space. However, reasons, though hopefully based on sound judgement, can be ephemeral. Reasons distort over time, change over time, even sometimes prove false over time. Do I love the place where I'm from, am I still connected to it, or am I in love instead with an idea I have formed after living apart from it for so long? Will the idea stand up to the reality? Probably not entirely. Will I be capable, then, of adapting to the reality? Hard to tell.

It's the whole Thomas Wolfe "you can't go home again" syndrome not uncommon to expats and others living far away for long periods of time. In the novel of the same name Wolfe writes:

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake, back home to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of 'the artist' and the all-sufficiency of 'art' and 'beauty' and 'love,' back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermuda, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time--back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

You can't go back home. You can't go back to a place that once seemed permanent, unchanging, and, in its permanence, meaningful but which, in fact, was "changing all the time." Maybe. Maybe I'll sink my feet and not feel comfort. Maybe I won't recognize that which I thought I knew. Once uprooted, maybe the only way to survive is to graft onto something else and hope that some other rootstock is capable of supporting another life. Luckily, for me, I'm interested enough in this idea that I'm willing to experiment, give it a shot with the consequence that at the very least the change will offer yet another series of experiences in a long list of speculative adventures. Ultimately, why not?

I look forward to it. I look forward to seeing friends and family I haven't seen in years. I look forward to open spaces, dry air, and endless expanses of sagebrush. I look forward to daily runs to the top of Kelly Springs or up the East Fork. I can't wait to ski Lizzie's Bowl, Buck's Choice, White Wine, or off the backside of Pine Mountain again, places where you're more likely to ski with antelope or elk than you are other skiers. And I already envision fishing my favorite spots on the... well, let's just say on some of the lesser-known rivers and streams surrounding the area. No need to disclose too much information.

Home might be more a state of mind than a fixed place. Maybe home represents a collective ideal of place, relations, history, landscape, culture, occupation, and any number of other factors. Maybe home is a single ideal and maybe it's a series of ever-evolving memories and wishes. I don't really know. Right now, all I know is that within a year I will leave, once again, a place I could never consider home and return to another place that in ten years, in many ways, I never left.